Running the Blockade from Confederate Ports

One of the most thrilling phases of the history of the Civil War is that which deals with running the blockade from, and into, the Southern ports. The absolute dependence of the South on European markets, both to sell her cotton and to obtain military supplies, induced the Confederate government early in its existence to foster blockade running as much as possible. The convenience of neutral harbors in the West Indies, the Bahamas, and the Bermudas was especially fortunate for such plans, and the year 1861 was not half gone before a number of fast sailing, low built, duskily painted ships were plying with much regularity between these islands and Wilmington, N. C., Charleston, Savannah and other Southern harbors.

The destination of a blockade runner was usually Nassau. This place, until it became the metropolis of the blockade trade, was of very little commercial importance. Its inhabitants had supported themselves by a thriftless kind of agriculture and by a sharp-some times too sharp -practice of wrecking. They were idle, good natured, and unambitious. Had it depended on them to manage the blockade trade, the Southern Confederacy might have perished of starvation. English merchants, as well as the Southerners themselves, saw the favorableness of the situation. Ere long the streets and quays of Nassau filled with sharp-eyed men, whose whole bearing betokened the speculator. Agents for London firms opened offices and erected warehouses. Ships began to unload vast quantities of war supplies. The harbor swarmed with craft of all kinds. The one hotel, which had hitherto been a ruinous investment, now became a handsome property. The docks were crowded with rollicking sailors and lounging natives, the latter finding as stevedores the best employment they had ever had. Living of all kinds became extravagantly dear. The men who had so suddenly swarmed thither were able to live high. The salary of the captain of a blockade runner was more for one month than that of the governor of the island for a year. The English garrison found the expense of living so great that they felt constrained to apply to their government for an increased allowance.

Of course the business of running the blockade was very profitable. The inward bound cargo was purchased at low figures in Europe and sold at high prices in the Confederacy. The return cargo was composed chiefly of cotton bought in a flooded market in the South and sold in a famishing market in Liverpool. As the war continued, these profits increased. If a ship could make only a few successful trips, the profits would be enough to enable the owners to realize a handsome sum, even though she should thereafter fall into the hands of the Union authorities. Those ships that made from twenty to fifty trips-and there were not a few of them-brought immense wealth to their owners. The officers and crews on such ships received, besides their liberal wages, a portion of the profits of the enterprise. While on shore at Nassau they were well provided for by the agents of the London owners. They were usually jolly and reckless fellows, willing to take a great deal of risk and quick-witted enough to extricate themselves from many a tight place. Many of the captains were Englishmen of prolonged naval experience. Some were officers of the English navy, who, tired of the inertia of life on half pay, volunteered in the present business, both for the money and the adventure to be had. If the ship were captured by the Americans, there was no great danger for such men. The vessel would be taken to New York, where the ship and cargo would be confiscated, and those of the crew who were not Americans would be released as citizens of a foreign nation. An English officer in this service usually went under an assumed name. For instance, a certain ‘Captain Roberts,” who commanded a boat called “The Don,” was in reality a titled officer in the British navy, and ended his life many years later as a high officer in the Turkish navy. He made six trips from Nassau to Wilmington and returned to England with a snug fortune.

Actually going through the blockade was not so perilous as one may at first be disposed to imagine. The attempt must be made on a dark night. The low-decked vessels were painted as nearly the color of the water as possible, so that they could not easily be discerned from a distance. The success of this feature of their construction is seen in the fact that one of them falling in during the early morning with a number of American cruisers on the South Carolina coast decided to lie to as near the coast as possible. Behind her was a dark outline of forest and here she lay for a whole day unrecognized by the several passing cruisers, who would gladly have snapped her up if she had been discovered.

A blockade runner, having loaded in a Southern port, would wait until a dark night and then, dropping down the harbor during the afternoon and lying concealed behind some highland till the tide was highest, she would make a sudden dash between the grim sentinels that composed the blockading squadron. It was something of an experience to go scooting at a sixteen-knot speed through a swarm of bellowing men-of-war, to hear the shots that were meant for your own unprotected hull whistling over your head, and to know that the next shot might be the one that would send your own craft to the bottom. Over such a scene would glare the rays of the Drummond Lights, which were burnt to reveal the whereabouts of the fleeing vessel. Great as the danger seems, it was not without elements of safety. The excitement often confused the gunners on the blockaders so that their shot went astray. Ten minutes of full speed through such an ordeal was enough to put a swift vessel out of immediate danger. An hour more would put her beyond the reach of the squadron. From that time the trip might be uneventful until the neighborhood of Nassau was reached. Here a number of cruisers might be expected and the navigator must call forth his most careful seamanship. The Southerners used to complain that this was a virtual blockade of a neutral harbor, but could not get the British government to see the matter in that light. Here the danger was less than on Southern coasts, for the cruisers, being compelled to keep three miles from shore, could not concentrate so as to guard the channel. They accordingly were compelled to try to run down their victims. It created no surprise to see a smart blockade runner come flying into the harbor with an angry Federal cruiser closely at her heels. It was not always possible for the pursuer to refrain from sending a parting shot across the bow of the fugitive, even after the neutral line had been crossed. An hour later both ships might be lying at the same dock and their officers dining in the same hotel.

One of the best situated ports in the South for blockade running was Wilmington, N. C. After the capture of Norfolk, Va., it was farthest north of all the better Confederate ports, and consequently nearest to the most considerable military operations. The mouth of the Cape Fear River is surrounded by shoals and it discharges its waters through two channels or inlets. It was almost impossible to blockade such a place. The blockade runners, who carried their own pilots, often picked out safely and deftly the channel and triumphantly made the port, while the pursuing gunboats went aground on the shoals. Not all of the blockade runners, however, were so fortunate. The approach to the river is to this day lined with the wrecks of the unfortunates that in the ardor of flight ran on the shoals and were not able to get off again.

Of the vessels of this description that came into Wilmington, perhaps the best known was the Advance— named in honor of the wife of Governor Vance. This was a fast steam packet built on the Clyde, and known there as the Lord Clyde. She was purchased by the State of North Carolina and used in bringing in supplies for the army, as well as other freight. She made twelve trips successfully and her arrival on each occasion was hailed with thankfulness by the starving people of that State. At last she was captured on account of defective coal. She had been obliged to give up part of her regular supply of anthracite to a cruiser that had brought in two rifled guns for the forts, and to take instead a supply of coal from the Egypt mines. This choked the flues and made so dense a smoke that her course was revealed, and she was chased and captured. Another notable blockade runner from this port was The Siren, a fast but small boat of great beauty, that made as many as fifty successful trips.

The actual conditions of life on a blockade runner may best be seen by following the experiences of a captain engaged in that business. One of the best for this purpose is the experience of Captain John Newland Maffit, which I shall relate.

Early in 1862 Captain Maffit sailed about dusk from Nassau for Wilmington, N. C. At daybreak on the following day he found himself in the company of three American cruisers. Increasing speed to the fullest capacity he sailed away from these although they fired briskly. In a few hours he discovered two more just ahead and sailing straight for him. These he managed to escape by running a zigzag course. A short time later he came across a Spanish ship on fire. Sending a man aloft to keep a sharp lookout, he sent an officer to the distressed vessel. The flames were soon extinguished, thanks were returned, and Captain Maffit sailed on his hunted way. He especially relished the aiding of the Spaniard, because on board of her were two New England ladies returning from a visit to Cuba. He chuckled to think what they would have said had they known they had received aid from a blockade runner of the Confederates.

On the evening of the succeeding day he found himself without further adventure seventy miles southeast of Wilmington. He dashed off sixty miles at full speed and arranged to pick his way carefully through the blockaders for the other ten. The usual shore lights had been extinguished for fear they might aid the Federals in some scheme of night attack. Says Captain Maffit: “Success in making the destined harbor depended on exact navigation, a knowledge of the coast, its surroundings and currents, a fearless approach, and the banishment of the subtle society of John Barleycorn.” In this case his calculations were well made. Just as the lead indicated lie was nearing the shore, he heard seven bells strike ahead of hint. It was the time for high tide on the bar, as he expected it should be. Looking forward he could dimly make out two men-of-war, so placed as to indicate that the channel lay between them. ‘He decided to dart through, hoping to pass unnoticed, and ordered full speed ahead. A hissing sound, followed by the ascent of a rocket, told him he was mistaken in this. Suddenly a speaking trumpet, that seemed to project over his very deck, commanded: ‘Heave to, or I will sink you!” “Ay, ay, sir!” came the reply. And then in a loud voice: “Stop the engines!” Every Confederate heart sank. The dreaded fate they had feared so long had come. It was surrender. By this time the momentum of the vessel had carried her beyond the two sphinx-like sentinels, who were making ready to send a boarding party. The gruff voice again rang out : “Back your engines, sir, and stand by to receive my boat.” “Full speed ahead, sir, and open wide your throttlevalve!” said Captain Maffit, in a low voice, to his engineer. In the darkness the Federals could not tell that the vessel was not really backing, and, having gotten ready to board, their gunners were not in position to fire instantly. They were soon undeceived and hurriedly opened fire. They burned Drummond lights, but the mists refracted the rays so as to raise the ship above her true position. Accordingly, many shots passed over her hull, but none struck it.

The next few moments were anxious ones for those on board with Captain Maffit. The ship carried nine hundred barrels of powder, and a hot shot into these might send the crew to a fate more awful than capture. As a matter of fact they escaped by a few moments of rapid sailing, and a short while later they were quietly anchored beneath the guns of Fort Fisher. Next morning the vessel proceeded at an easy sail to Wilmington, where she quietly unloaded her cargo. The gunpowder was sent to the front, and General Johnston used it a few days later in fighting the battle of Shiloh. It was a thrilling adventure, and it illustrates, and better than anything else, the life that men who ran the blockade lived and the spirit it was necessary to have in order to go through it. It indicates one of the most worthy fields of investigation in the whole story of our notable war.


Civil War, Land,

Trinity College Historical Society. Historical Papers of the Trinity College Historical Society. Durham, N. C.: The Society. 1897-1956.

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